To the Editor:
In Craig Cramer’s recent opinion piece in the Chronicle, he suggests that while we are all aware of Bill Gates’s reported scandalous behavior, including meetings he held with Jeffrey Epstein, such criticisms are “irrelevant” and unworthy of public discourse in the face of the global threats he is tackling for our collective benefit.
Cramer’s message is, essentially, that we should be grateful that one of the wealthiest men in the world is investing billions to solve climate change, poverty, and disease — and that journalists should not encourage the public to question his methods or morality. I disagree.
Cramer is pushing a false binary that suggests gratitude and constructive criticism can’t exist simultaneously. His argument is also incredibly callous toward the victims of Epstein’s alleged sexual abuse. By continuing to associate with abusers, powerful men like Gates provide cover for their abhorrent behavior. When we’re asked to separate the art from the artist, what we’re really saying is that it’s fine to sacrifice certain vulnerable classes of people in service to a higher cause as defined by that philanthropic leader.
Few, if any, of those leaders belong to demographic groups that stand to suffer as a result of such collective apathy. If Epstein had sex trafficked tech billionaires rather than children, it’s difficult to imagine we’d be discussing the tradeoffs between Gates’s likability and philanthropic impact when judging whether his association with Epstein was problematic enough to warrant criticism.
Cramer notes that during his time working for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he found Bill Gates to be “somewhat awkward socially” and “not the nicest person.” But he implies that Gates more than compensates for this by being “ambitious” and “next-level smart.” This is a red herring given that Gates’s ambition and intelligence were never in question and are not topics of the discussion at hand.
While no one is perfect, it’s wrong to suggest that the core values and personality traits that inform how one of the most powerful men in the world treats people are “irrelevant.” We don’t need to like everything about the philanthropic leaders who are helping us address the world’s biggest problems, but we do need to feel comfortable with the aspects of their personality and core values that influence their funding decisions and what they consider successful outcomes.
When a philanthropist’s wealth, power, and influence are so great that they may play a significant role in the survival of our entire species — no exaggeration, given extreme climate change and a global pandemic — it shouldn’t be controversial to hold that person accountable for his personal values and actions. Rather than ignoring the flaws of powerful men, we should engage in productive public discourse about how we can collectively compensate for their shortcomings to achieve shared goals.
Yes, we should keep our noses out of the more salacious details of the Gateses’ high-profile divorce and other private matters, but this doesn’t have to translate into sweeping under the rug those actions that we believe have a direct impact on Bill Gates’s moral judgments as they relate to his philanthropy. We can simultaneously appreciate that Gates’s ambition for his philanthropic endeavors is equal to what he put into his profit-making ventures, while also suggesting that he could do some things differently.
This is not a case of no good deed goes unpunished. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that when powerful people make far-reaching decisions that affect the rest of us, we should all be encouraged to provide feedback about those decisions.
Fortunes are never built with the hands of one person. Our best leaders know this and incorporate this knowledge into their actions by treating criticisms as valuable tools used to improve their work rather than as nuisances in need of deflection. We would all do well to remember this when balancing our gratitude with our equally important responsibility to hold philanthropic leaders accountable — not only for how effectively they define and carry out their charitable goals but for the moral costs of their decisions, including who is sacrificed to achieve them.